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The Moral Dangers of the Entitlement State

November 13, 2012 J

By Jason Hughey

Too often, conservatives and libertarians focus on the purely pragmatic failures of the entitlement state. While it can prove interesting to debate among policy experts, track down new CBO reports, rummage through fancy charts, and extrapolate talking points from data, we must always remember to hold fast to the moral analysis that forms the bedrock of the free market system. Such moral analysis is grounded in the fundamental rights of life, liberty, and property.

Unfortunately, moral arguments against entitlement programs based upon this language are often ignored or immediately dismissed. Many academics and politicians deem them impractical and outdated. We’re supposed to accept that we live in a more progressive age that emphasizes new values of equality and empathy.

As such, these times require the leadership of enlightened statesmen and professional bureaucrats endowed with the power to make exceptions to the inconvenient old moral rules in order to guide public policy. People must be treated fairly and equally at all times even if that means government interference. Thus, a massive federal entitlement state must provide for our material needs and insure us against the dangers of life’s uncertainties.

To such people, liberty is a nice value, but equality is supreme.

Many Americans think this vision sounds downright wonderful. But that’s always the danger that accompanies moral sophistry: it sounds downright wonderful.

In reality, the entitlement state is a fertile ground for moral failure and corruption. By dismissing the old moral system of negative individual rights, massive entitlement states surreptitiously erode the individual rights of their citizens. Instead of allowing individuals to strive for greater success and reap the well-earned rewards of their labor, a bloated entitlement state punishes those individuals by raising their taxes. Instead of allowing individuals to voluntarily address the problems of poverty within their community, the federal government forces them to do it for the entire nation. This engenders a wholesale disrespect for the right of property among individuals on questions related to federal budget, tax, and spending policy.

In the United States, this disrespect for the right of property will bear out on younger generations. Our federal government currently owes over $11 trillion in public debt, much of which has funded the growth of the modern entitlement state. That’s money that the government has literally stolen from current and future generations. Additionally, young people that are lucky enough to find a job in this economy are being forced to pay into Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid, despite facing a future in which both of those programs will go insolvent in their lifetimes. Some of these young people are mad about this, and rightfully so. They are being coerced by the heavy hand of government to pay into a system that will fail them.

Furthermore, by using the government to extract property from its citizens, the entitlement state in the U.S. has engendered conflict and discord. Instead of freely working together to solve the problems of poverty and retirement security, the entitlement state has turned the law into a wellspring of heated and angry resentment where certain groups of people fight over control of legislation to ensure that they continue to receive their favored benefits. As long as the federal government remains the source of entitlement programs, this endless cycle of using the law for personal gain by politicians, bureaucrats, and Americans of all income levels, will continue.

This leads to perhaps the most morally damaging aspect of our federal entitlement state: it fosters and encourages the deprivation of human flourishing that we have been taught to ascribe to the allegedly raucous forces of the free market. Instead of recognizing that individuals thrive when their rights to life, liberty, and property, are respected, politicians falsely inject their own moral notions of equality into the programs that fuel the entitlement state. As such, instead of earned success, individuals settle for dependency. Instead of respect for other’s property, individuals demand that the government continually take from others. This certainly increases political power, but it does so at the expense of human dignity and social progress.

With the entitlement states in Greece, France, and Spain at various stages of collapse, it is essential that we fuse our practical concerns with our moral imperatives. In these European countries, we are witnessing both the practical and the moral shortcomings of the entitlement state manifesting in very serious and devastating ways. Is it really morally responsible for us to continue down the same ruinous path when we see where such a path leads?

When discussing the role of the federal government and the morality of the entitlement state, the old moral code of life, liberty, and property, has been forgotten for long enough. It’s time to bring it back to the forefront of the discussion.

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